Give Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst this: he knows how to milk a crescendo. That’s not a talent to be scoffed at when your band is playing the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and when the orchestra makes its big entrance, diving headfirst into the scrum three minutes into the opening number “Don’t Know When But A Day is Gonna Come…,” the effect feels as powerful and inevitable as “Kashmir.” It’s one Oberst is so enamored of, and one he returns to it repeatedly — too repeatedly. By the end of the 90-minute concert, a noble but ultimately unsatisfying experiment, the inevitable orchestral clangor turns from an appealing thrum to the uncomfortable throb of a toothache.
The latest in a long line of sensitively bruised romantics, Oberst has never been afraid of bombast, and having an orchestra at his disposal only increased that tendency. The arrangements, by keyboardist Nathaniel Walcott (assisted by conductor Suzie Katayama and Dwight Mikkelsen), made maximum use of the orchestra — at times it seemed as though they were determined to get their money’s worth from the Philharmonic, and have every instrument play as often as possible.
They might not have had any choice, given the noisy edition of Bright Eyes they shared the stage with. With two drummers bashing away, Mike Mogis’ various guitars and Walcott’s keys taking up so much space, there wasn’t room for the orchestra to insinuate themselves into the music; the two bands were forced to wrestle each other for supremacy. The results, more often than not, were a muddy draw. On “Bowl Of Oranges” they galloped along like they were accompanying a B-movie Western, but the Dylanesque shuffle of “Another Travellin’ Song” was an epic trainwreck, with the orchestra sawing away on top with the manic energy of a production number from a 1970s variety show.
Songs from the band’s most recent album, “Cassadaga,” (Saddle Creek) fared better, perhaps because that album was already heavily orchestrated. “Make A Plan To Love Me” and “No One Would Riot For Less” were the evening’s most successful, their orchestrations, trio of female backup vocalists and Oberst’s bruised vocals approaching the epic heartbreak of Leonard Cohen.
But Oberst lacks Cohen’s meticulousness. Even his best songs have a messy, unfinished quality, a tendency that makes them feel more like post-adolescent blog entries, with lyrics and melodies jotted down and barely reworked. Unlike Belle and Sebastian, whose show with the Philharmonic remains the best of the recent orchestral rock collaborations, Oberst doesn’t seem especially interested in the form and structure of pop songs. A talented and ambitious musician, he’s yet to discover the discipline necessary to make such a grandiose project work.
He could learn a bit from openers Yo La Tengo. The veteran Hoboken trio can be every bit as self-indulgent as Oberst, but they perform with an appealing modesty that makes it easy to forgive them any transgressions. Their 45-minute set gave a taste of everything they do well, from shimmering, fuzzed out pop (their cover of “Little Honda”), head nodding drones (“Autumn Sweater”) and noisy guitar work outs (“The Story of Yo La Tengo”).